Are You Really Sorry?

“Topics You Always Wanted a Sermon On”

Luke 15:17-27

Ever witness a situation something like this one?

The wife says "I'd forgive him if he would just apologize."
He responded, "I did apologize."
"You did not."

"I told you I was sorry," he said.
"That is not an apology," she responded.

 The question I have been asked to speak on today is: What is the difference between asking forgiveness and saying you are sorry?

 Many of us remember this situation when we were younger: Little Johnny pushes Mary down the stairs. Mary screams. Mom comes, surveys the situation and says to Johnny, "Tell her you're sorry." So Johnny snidely says, "I'm sorry," even though he wasn't. No one walks away satisfied with what happened.

 What is the difference between asking forgiveness and saying you are sorry?

 Those of my generation received conflicting information about forgiveness growing up:

 - Back in 1970 a tear-jerker movie came out about a guy from a rich, Harvard family who fell in love with a poor working class gal – giving up all the monetary support of his wealthy family they got married & struggled financially to get through college. Then the gal is diagnosed with a terminal disease and the tears start flowing in the theater as she dies. Remember that one? It was called “Love Story”and it still may bring romantic chills to you. What famous line came from that movie? "Love means not ever having to say you're sorry." Is that true?

 - In business, especially traditional ones, many of us heard this saying “It is easier to ask forgiveness, than to seek permission” Do we really meant it then when we do ask forgiveness in those situations.

 - Some of the macho heroes would say, “It takes a big man to admit they are wrong”. Quite an encouragement to honestly confess our wrongs.

 So which is it? Saying sorry as a forced statement that satisfies no one? You should never have to say “sorry” if you are in love because the other should just unconditionally accept you? Overcoming pride to say “sorry” for doing wrong is tough but it is what real men do? Or “sorry” is a quick out if you are caught ignoring the boss in business?  

What is the difference between asking forgiveness and saying you are sorry?

This is by far the most profound question I have ever received because it zeroes in on something that is changing dramatically in our culture but most haven’t thought deeply about it. They can FEEL something is different but haven’t placed their finger on the change yet. Asking forgiveness and saying you are sorry should mean basically the same thing. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary on my computer

     to repent (which is as close as I could get since there isn’t any entry for “ask forgiveness”)

                   means “to feel sorrow, regret or contrition”

     while to be sorry means “to feel sorrow, regret or penitence.” Sounds awful close to me.

 Yet our culture is beginning to use these words very different ways than the definitions passed on by our parents. Thus it is an excellent question to seek God’s wisdom from the Bible. The Bible does NOT make a major distinction between these words – in fact the word “sorry” is only used twice in the NIV – only once in the 39 different books of the Old Testament and only once in the 27 books of the New Testament. So what we will do instead is quickly look at the more commonly used word “forgive” and “forgiveness” in terms of human relationships, since I believe that is the context of this question and its definitely the context of the profound change happening around us. 

 PROPOSITION: There is no real release and renewal without true confession that our action is wrong and some subsequent action to demonstrate our repentance.

 I. The Power of Forgiveness                                                                        Luke 15:17-27

In Luke 15 we have one of the most famous & well-known parables in the world – the Parable of the Lost Son or more often called “The Prodigal Son.” As a younger man, he was discontent with life at home, asked for his inheritance early then wasted all the money doing things that neither his parents nor God approved of. Then the consequences of that wrong living caught up to him, he hit the bottom & was in despair. We would say “he had burnt all his bridges” with his family and all his new friends left when the money left.  

       A. Restores relationships                                                                    Luke 15:22-24

What was he to do? READ v 17-19He must first come to his senses – I love that statement. All wrong we do is self-justified. He had thought his actions were fine. We have to first see the situation from a neutral or God perspective. He just wasted what his father & mother had spent a life-time sacrificing for simply to help his life be easier. We can’t ask forgiveness unless we are willing to admit what we have done is wrong and accept responsibility for it. READ v 18b. I’ve done wrong to God and to you. I’ve messed up these relationships; I’ve done wrong. There are no excuses and no more “buts” or blaming others. Too many American Christians today believe they can do wrong and God should just accept them because of His unconditional love – without any admitting it was wrong or taking responsibility for their actions. In those cases, the power of asking for forgiveness is lost.    

The son did more than express regret. READ v 19.  He is seeking to make up for the wrong – he’s not asking for his privileged position back. He is demonstrating that he not only sees it was wrong, but is not going to do that again. He understands now what he has put his parents through. So he is expressing regret, accepting responsibility, giving every evidence he’s learned a lesson, showing he won’t do it again, is seeking to do what he can to make it right.

What does this do for the relationship?  READ v 21-23. The son’s repentance opens the door for the relationship to be FULLY restored. The ROBE was reserved for guests of honor. The RING was a symbol of authority. The SANDLES showed he wasn’t seen as a slave. The PARTY is a time of celebration. In simply terms, this represented the full restoration of the son! READ v 24. It is a whole new start.   

Asking forgiveness of another sets the stage for restored relationships which can not happen without genuine apology. Asking forgiveness helps the fractured relationship begin to mend. Listen just to the physical difference it makes as described in an August 2002 Psychology Today article titled "I'm Sorry":

 "An apology is crucial to our mental and even physical health. Recent research shows that receiving an apology has a noticeable, positive physical effect on the body. An apology actually affects the bodily functions of the person receiving it -- blood pressure decreases, heart rate slows and breathing becomes steadier."

B. Frees community                                                                           Luke 15:24-27

Asking forgiveness not allows individual relationships to be restored, but it also frees the larger community to be restored. READ v 24b. Who is “they”? It has to be more than just the Father and the younger son. It is extended family, neighbors and fellow workers. There is a big party – meaning lots of people. READ v 25-27. Even outside people knew something special was happening. Not only can the younger son’s repentance heal the father-son relationship, but also that of the extended family, neighborhood and the fellow workers of the family business.

Every major sin we do as Christians hurts the church family that we are a part of. I’m amazed at a number of problems we faced here at the church in the 1980’s which were not at all caused by what people thought they were. Years later we would learn of major, hidden sin on behalf of one of those involved which was the real cause. Every sin hurts the various families we are a part of. Now when we confess those known sins to the family – it frees that family up. For example, God calls this church family to stand against that which He calls sin. We are called to reinforce God’s message of holiness in a clear way. As one person noted, “Our Lord is in the cleansing business, not the whitewashing business.” But when true, humble confession & evidence of that confession is given, the group is given a new mandate from heaven – we are to reinforce God’s message of grace. We are freed to grant forgiveness and restore previously broken relationships.   

       C. Leads to transformation                                                                 James 5:16

Turn to James 5. Asking forgiveness also frees the offending person and puts them in a position where genuine transformation can happen through the power of the Holy Spirit. The parable in Luke 15 doesn’t tell us what happened spiritually to the younger son – we’re led to believer a major life change happened. What we do see is that spiritual transformation does NOT happen to the older son because the older brother won’t receive the request for forgiveness nor will he grant forgiveness to his younger brother at this time. So the older brother actually is now enslaved to his own bitterness and unforgiving attitude.

 Listen to how powerful asking forgiveness is for the person doing it. READ James 5:16. There are some emotional, physical and spiritual problems that will not be healed until the person truly confesses hidden sins to another believer. There is something incomplete in their confession before God that only can come out by repenting before another person. I can’t explain why – but I have seen it numerous times in peoples’ lives. It is incredible the life transformation that can come by this simple act of honestly and completely asking forgiveness. Listen to these words I stumbled on this week in an internet journal …   

 “The interesting thing is that the moment I decided to ask forgiveness of people both living and dead, it opened up a door in my soul and a whole lot of light poured in. Painful memories that kept knocking on my door suddenly evaporated. Amazing how freeing this is!”

      D. Christians called to forgive as God forgave us                                 Ephesians 4:32

Turn to Ephesians 4:32 for one final note. All the way through, the context for asking forgiveness, confessing and repenting has been sin or wrongs that WE have done. None of the examples I found were about someone else claiming their feelings were hurt – something we may or may not have any control over. There were no calls to apologize when we didn’t see our actions as wrong. Furthermore God states in the strongest possible way that people already forgiven by God need to forgive others. READ Eph 4:32. We are to forgive as God forgives. When does God forgive us?When we genuinely apologize, ask forgiveness, admit our wrong and show some evidence the repentance is genuine. But God doesn’t forgive everyone – He forgives those who ask. Sometimes, people are encouraged to forgive even without an apology – people say that's the Christian thing to do. But reconciliation and true forgiveness come only in response to an apology, when a person acknowledges their wrong. That’s the model God gives us which leads to restoration, freedom and transformation.

 II. The change today

With these powerful benefits, especially relationally, one would think that our culture would put a high premium on practicing true repentance – that the way we say we are sorry or ask forgiveness would include the God ordained areas of expressing regret, taking responsibility for the wrong we’ve done, seeking to make the wrong right, & actually asking forgiveness.  

        A. Embarrassed Politicians

But that isn’t the case. More and more we find that our world is filled with meaningless apologies.  Apologies are often crafted by public relations firms and boil down, "I'm sorry that you caught me.” This is especially evident in the words of embarrassed politicians caught for something they’ve done wrong. Add to this the constant calls for apologies to politicians just for saying clearly what they believe and we have a new situation in America – it is “saying you’re sorry by the polls instead of the wrong actions.”  

L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke University's Divinity School calls this “spin sorrow”"It's a public relations spin to construct a carefully worded apology that often says something like `I'm sorry people's feelings were hurt.'" He notes that the nature of political apologies is now different than what God calls for in the Bible. "In both Christian and Jewish traditions, an apology or a request for forgiveness is supposed to be linked to repentance. It's never `I'm sorry for your reaction,' but `Please forgive me, what can I do to make things right?'" This change is beginning to undermine the everyday repentance that restores relationships and transforms individuals – now saying one is “sorry” means little more than “I know you are upset so I’m going to say this word to comfort you even though I don’t see any problem with it at all – I’ll just be a little more careful in public by being less honest of what I really think.”

        B. Everyday people

According to a BBC article from Britain on Jan 8, 2007, this change is affecting everyday people. The BBC pointed out that “sorry” used to be a way of apologizing and was one of the hardest words to say. Now it has become quite easy to say as people use it quite flippantly and even as a cheap & convenient way of excusing anti-social or inappropriate behaviour. They reported on a study which claims the average Brit will say sorry a staggering 1.9 million times in his or her lifetime. In fact the word sorry is uttered 368 million times per day in the UK. While the word is now used often, the average person admits they don't mean it more than a third of the time.

What are the top 5 reasons for saying sorry in Britain?  

  • number one is when we don't have time to speak to someone or do something - "Sorry, I don't have time to talk right now"
  • two is to apologize on someone else's behalf, such as our children, a partner or a colleague - "Sorry, little Jimmy is always smashing things"
  • three is when we didn't hear what someone was saying - "Sorry, can you repeat that?"
  • in fourth place is when you want something to be explained to you again - "Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean"
  • and it isn’t until the fifth reason that we actually use the word to apologize for having done something wrong, lied to or let someone down - "I'm sorry."

The word sorry is being used more than ever, but it’s healing less & less – not God’s.

III. Making apologies meaningful

So that brings us back to our first illustration of the wife not believing the husband’s apology. In a world where saying “one’s sorry” no longer means what the Bible says will heal and transform, how do we practically apply God’s teaching on forgiveness – how do we make apologies meaningful in our world today?

 Recently Dr Gary Chapman and Dr, Jennifer Thomas completed a two year research project where they noted that different people look for different aspects in an apology. They identified what they called the “Five Languages of Apology.” I call them the 5 elements of true repentance and they are in-line with what we saw in Luke 15. What they noted is that the average apology only has one or two of these aspects in it, so when one attempts to say they are sorry, the other person may feel it is insincere – even when it is a good apology in God’s sight. They say it is not enough to be sincere – you must be sincere in a language the other person can understand. Or the way I would put it is that, we are in a society which has watered down what it means to “say one is sorry” or to “ask for forgiveness”. We can’t think of these words as short-hand to represent the bigger picture of repentance that God has ordained – instead we need to consider reflecting all these when we’ve done wrong. I think they are a helpful list to make sure our real apologies are meaningful.  

         A. Expressing Regret

The first aspect is expressing Regret: That is saying "I am sorry" in the true sense of the word. This aspect identifies with the emotions of the other person. We clearly state that we know that our wrong behavior has hurt them deeply. The focus comes off of us and goes to the effect we’ve had on the other person. At the same time we reject the modern attempt to make it a crime if someone else’s feelings are hurt which has really corrupted the word “sorry” and made it a political joke.

        B. Accepting Responsibility

The second aspect is accepting Responsibility. This is saying the “W” word - "I was wrong." Here you name what you did wrong, accept fault and clearly state it was wrong without any excuses. I say this is the prime meaning of the word “confession” in the Bible. "I should not have done that. There's no excuse. What I did was wrong."

We can help our kids be more successful in this area by teaching them to accept responsibility in the everyday actions of life. For example, if a two year old breaks a cookie and says, “it broke” – you can say with a smile “Let’s say that again: I broke the cookie.” When they repeat after you, it is a foundational step for accepting responsibility for their behavior – which they won’t learn from culture these days.

       C. Making Restitution

The third aspect they call making Restitution. Restitution is seeking to restore what was lost – it is to compensate for injury. This is always an action step. "What could I do to make this right?How can I make amends to you? How could I restore your confidence in me?" This aspect is what speaks most clearly to me personally. If someone asks to meet me, but then never shows up – saying “sorry” sounds like a bunch of hot air since it doesn’t make up for the time I lost & other sacrifices I had to make because of it. But say, I’ll stay an extra hour and do whatever will help you as a way to make it right and I’ll be in 7th heaven. To me that is genuine. There is so little restitution going on in apologies today and it is the number one suggestion that I read the last couple weeks on BOTH Christian and non-Christian web sites to how to make asking forgiveness more meaningful. The Bible is full of calls for restitution or fruit of repentance. Zaccheus’ response to Jesus is a wonderful example.

       D. Genuinely Repenting

The fourth aspect they call genuine Repentance"I'll try not to do that again." This is focused on the “turn around” aspect of repentance in the Bible. Not only do we recognize our actions are wrong, but then we seek to live differently – to go the other way. In doing so, true repentance doesn't make rash promises – saying "I promise I'll never do it again if you'll forgive me" is empty. Because we can’t promise perfection. Instead true repentance does express the desire to change one's behavior. "I don't want this to continue happening. Help me think of ways I can change my behavior." This is also an action step, but the actions are aimed at decreasing the temptation for wrong or increasing the chance to do good.

      E. Requesting forgiveness

The fifth aspect they call requesting Forgiveness"Will you please forgive me?" The focus of this aspect is displaying true humility. One is asking for forgiveness with no demands, no bargaining, & no getting upset if they don’t immediately grant it. "I realize I can't restore this relationship alone. It will require mercy on your part, but my sincere desire is that you will forgive me and we can continue our relationship." Then you simply leave it to God and them.

What is the difference between asking forgiveness and saying you are sorry? There shouldn’t be any major difference, but sadly our culture today is moving farther and farther away from God’s plan to powerfully restore relationships between sinful people. By recognizing this and being more intentional in putting in all the aspects of true repentance, our apologies can once again have life transforming results for all involved. To God be the glory. AMEN!